News / Africa

Mentally Ill Girls at Risk of Rape in South Africa

Darren Taylor

This is Part Two of a five-part series 
on the mentally disabled in South Africa   
Continue to Parts:   1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 


Sunrise, and the “children of Satan” are harvesting vegetables from “hell’s garden.”
 
The women stoop, stretch, strain and sweat to pick the choicest cauliflowers, carrots, beetroot and spinach for the day’s meals. Their dresses drag in the manure used to enrich the dark soil. 
 
It looks like many other pastoral scenes in rural South Africa where people survive by subsistence farming. But these women are mentally disabled, with such brain-damaging conditions as cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome.
 
“Some people in the villages around here, they call mentally ill people things like, ‘You are the children of Satan.’ They call them ‘monsters.’ They call this place ‘hell’s garden,’” said Zwelisithile Bendlela, a local sangoma, or traditional healer.   

  • A female resident of Ikhaya Loxolo begins a morning school lesson … Most of the mentally disabled and mentally ill women here have been raped (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • One of the home’s caregivers helps patients to harvest vegetables for the day’s meals (VOA/Taylor)
  • “They call this place ‘hell’s garden,’” says Zwelisithile Bendlela, a local traditional healer (VOA/Taylor)
  • The home’s director, Alex Gunther, gives instructions to caregivers and patients as the day’s harvest begins on Ikhaya Loxolo’s farm (VOA/Taylor)
  • In Hobeni, like in other parts of South Africa, criminals target disabled women and girls for rape (VOA/Taylor)
  • One of Ikhaya Loxolo’s female residents feeds chickens in the home’s dining hall (VOA/Taylor)
  • The Xhosa chief of Hobeni, Patrick Fudumele, is doing his best to protect the area’s mentally disabled women and girls from sexual abuse (VOA/Taylor)
  • The home’s residents are particularly fond of Alex’s husband, Michael, who manages Ikhaya Loxolo’s farm (VOA/Taylor)
  • Alex Gunther says all mentally disabled and mentally ill people deserve love and dignity (VOA/Taylor)
  • Community elder Mama ka Blondie [left] and Alex Gunther prepare to serve lunch at Ikhaya Loxolo (VOA/Taylor)
  • Alex and Michael Gunther gaze over their land in Hobeni in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province (VOA/Taylor)
  • Alex Gunther picks herbs in the home’s garden (VOA/Taylor)

 
The place he’s referring to is Ikhaya Loxolo, or “Home of Peace.” The compound of mud huts is the only facility for hundreds of miles in this mountainous, isolated part of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province that offers shelter and rehabilitation to people with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities.
 
Its caregivers teach them to walk – mentally and physically. The crippled and spastic learn to stand; those who have been silent for years begin to talk. Ikhaya Loxolo’s residents are taught very basic reading, writing and arithmetic, and to cook and clean for themselves.
 
“Simply put – they get dignity and they feel normal,” the home’s director, Alex Gunther, told VOA.   
     
Hobeni, which is deep in the heartland of the Xhosa people, is no different than many other regions of rural South Africa. People here generally believe that witches, evil spirits and the devil are responsible for “cursing” the mentally ill.
 
Because of that, mental disability carries a massive stigma and those afflicted with it are often discriminated against in terrible ways. Their families are ashamed of them and some are tied up and even chained and locked away, hidden from public view.
 
Some mentally disabled people in Hobeni district suffer intense abuse.
 
‘To hell and back’
 
Almost all of the women working on the home’s farm this morning have been severely sexually abused and raped.
 
“At a point last year we had 10 residents – nine of them female and nine of them coming from having being raped or molested previously. In this area the mentally disabled girls, they are being taken advantage of like in no other place.... It’s hurting. It’s hurting us….” said Gunther, her voice quavering with emotion.   
 
“The worst is that it happens so often that it’s even normal to the community. To us it’s shocking; to them it’s normal. It’s what happens to a mentally disabled girl,” said the mental health therapist with high qualifications from Germany’s health system. “The mentally disabled are seen as worthless and if they are abused and raped and even killed then the attitude is, so what?”
 
Currently, Ikhaya Loxolo is home to girls and women who Gunther said have “gone to hell and back” in mind and body.
 
“They’re between the ages of 14 and 22. Some have been raped repeatedly, by different people. They have long histories of sexual abuse. That’s why they came to us. Typically they are found by hospital workers and then brought to us.”
 
‘Dragged into the long grass…’
 
One of the girls was raped when she was 10 years old, while fetching water at a spring near Hobeni.
 
“Another girl was raped when she was a resident here, but when she was at home for a Christmas holiday. There was no one home to look after her and she was there with other little children,” Gunther explained. “The drunk guy came into the house and locked the house with her inside…and started to rape her. The other children luckily ran for help. Then many adults came to rescue her and beat up the rapist but she was already raped.”
In the affluent suburbs of South Africa’s cities and towns, high walls, electric fences and heavily armed guards keep criminals out. But in impoverished townships and villages like Hobeni there are no such luxuries. People here can hardly afford food, let alone security measures.
 
“Everyone has to walk everywhere. No one here has cars. So often women and girls are raped in the bush. They are dragged into the long grass and assaulted. Because it’s so isolated here, no one hears their screams,” said Gunther, adding, “We don’t allow our disabled residents to go outside the yard alone. They always go [in pairs] or with an adult or with a male. Because if you go from here like to the shop, you have to cross two rivers and go through two forests, where anything can happen.”
 
Gunther said the sexual abuse of mentally disabled girls happens continually in regions like Hobeni.
 
“When rape of a mentally disabled girl happens, her parents are very sad about it but they are not shocked – because it happens all the time,” said the caregiver, grimacing. “Some of the girls we have now at Ikhaya Loxolo, they are here because the mothers say, ‘Sooner or later my girl will be raped and I don’t want that.’ So they know we give 24-hour care. It can’t happen here….”
 
‘Plague’ of rapes
 
The Xhosa chief of Hobeni district, Patrick Fudumele, said he’s desperate to end the “scourge” of rape of mentally handicapped girls and women.   
 
“The bad men in this area, they especially target these mentally disabled girls,” he said. “There are some guys here in our village they are just committing rape sometimes. The girls are not safe if they are out of this project….”
 
The chief added, shaking his head, “I am very, very angry sometimes. They make me very, very cross.… We are just phoning the police immediately when they are committing [rape]. We just phone the police [to] arrest the rapists who rape the children who are mentally not right.…”
 
Fudumele said the attackers are often drunk. “They drink a lot at shebeens [illegal bars] or at traditional ceremonies then on their way back home they see a mentally disabled girl rolling down the street and they pull the girl into the bush and rape her,” he stated. 
 
He acknowledged, “Even with arrests, the rape just continues. It is like a plague here.”
 
But Gunther said the vast majority of crimes against mentally ill people are not reported, and Fudumele maintained, “People here just don’t care what happens to these people.”
 
Few arrests, convictions
 
The chief was adamant that criminals target the mentally disabled “because they cannot fight back and mostly they are not able to identify their attackers. Very few of these rapists are ever convicted. Also, people don’t believe these girls when they say, ‘Someone has raped me.…’” 
 
As an example, Gunther referred to the recent rape of a little girl near Ikhaya Loxolo.
 
“That crime was committed by a man who everyone thought was such a good person,” she said, whispering. “But at the time he wasn’t caught and he denied [raping the girl] and the community believed him. [Their attitude was], ‘Look, this is a disabled girl; probably she’s getting confused.’ They believed him. But when he did it the second time with the girl, now we knew…. He was in jail but that was two years ago; I hope he is still there.”
 
But Gunther said it’s extremely rare for anyone in the Hobeni area to be arrested, tried and convicted for attacking a mentally ill or disabled person. Mostly, she said, the police free those who’ve been accused of crimes against the mentally ill.
 
“It’s very hard to prosecute these kinds of crimes, involving people who aren’t alright mentally, especially when there are no witnesses,” said Gunther. She added, “But even when there are witnesses we find a great reluctance among law enforcement people to follow up on cases where a mentally disabled person has been attacked. It is as if they don’t have the same rights to justice as other people, simply because they are disabled and considered not fully human.”
 
Chief Fudumele appealed for a “government-driven anti-rape drive” in Hobeni, and a “government-driven campaign to educate people that mentally disabled people are also human beings, and also deserve love and respect.” He added, “But this sadly is not happening….”
 
Suddenly, he’s interrupted by the sound of a football being kicked followed by an outburst of joyous screeching.… Gunther’s husband, Michael, a mechanical expert and agriculturalist who helps his wife run Ikhaya Loxolo, is leading the home’s residents in a game of soccer. The women and girls trust him, they say, because he’s “gentle and kind” and not like most of the other men they’ve known so far in their short but pain-filled lives.   
 
Then someone kicks the ball again, and they all whoop and shriek and tear after it, the ragged and the raped and the “monsters” and others like them, and then they all play some more. Their shabby dresses fly in the air and the old cook wearing the oil-stained apron raises more hilarity when she trips and falls over her own feet. Then there’s a great cry of near-hysterical mirth when the boy with Down Syndrome scores a goal and celebrates by jumping in the air repeatedly, arms extended…only to realize that’s he’s scored for the wrong team.
 
And the sunset turns hell’s garden into a dappled heaven of laughter, and the day dies in purple and pink iridescence, and eventually casts a burnt orange blanket over the turquoise sky. 

Listen to Taylor report on vulnerability of mentally disabled to rape
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